Bless The Beasts And The Road Kill

The Minnesota association of rogue taxidermists unearths an exquisite corpse

Sarina Brewer will travel for miles just to scrape dead animals off the road. She cruises around town in an old Chevy Impala, looking for fresh specimens to feed to the dermestid beetles she keeps in the trunk of her car. As long as the rotting animal hasn't been infested with maggots, Brewer will pick it up and turn it into a work of art. "Maggots and eye boogers are the only two things that gross me out," she says. "I can put my hand inside any animal, but I hate those two things."

Brewer, whose road kill sculptures are currently on display at Creative Electric Studios' "Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists (MART)" exhibit, grew up on a farm with hippie parents and hordes of cats, gerbils, and snakes. She's been an animal lover her whole life and still shares her home with a menagerie of dogs, fish, snakes, and birds. All of the animals used in her art come from road kill, discarded livestock, destroyed nuisance animals, or animals that have died of natural causes. "My obsession with dead animals came from my obsession with live animals," she says. "When my pets would die, I would have a little burial ritual. And I always wondered, Well, what do they look like now? And I'd go dig them up and look at them.

"It was almost like wanting to have a part of them or something," she says. "Like wanting to have someone's ashes."

Kiss me deadly: Sarina Brewer gets squirrelly with her sculpture
Mike Mosedale
Kiss me deadly: Sarina Brewer gets squirrelly with her sculpture

For Robert Marbury, an obsession with the art of taxidermy began with stuffed animals. The bespectacled artist and photographer cuts away the fur from cuddly teddy bears and reconstructs them as teeth-baring city dwellers as part of his Urban Beast Project, which documents the fabricated plight of his fuzzy feral creatures. Along with works from Brewer and fellow MART member Scott Bibus, his artwork will be displayed through November 15 at Creative Electric.

"Stuffed animals are so funny," Marbury says. "They pull weird things out of us. They're sort of like a story."

Marbury's stuffed beasts possess more elaborate stories than Moses does. All of his 20 or so critters live in Marbury's manmade animal kingdom, and all have their own fabled history and taxonomy listed on his website, www.urbanbeast.com. Fernando, a tusked "trash mammoth" that looks like a mini Mr. Snuffleupagus, was recycled from a stuffed orangutan that Marbury used to re-create a famous Caravaggio painting. In one of Marbury's many animal-themed photo projects, the orangutan poses as "Doubting Thomas," placing its furry finger inside the open wound of what Marbury calls the "Dumb Bear Christ."

Another character, the mythical jinn, is a twisted, Beanie Baby-inspired tree dweller with Andy Rooney eyebrows and a dingy soul patch. "Jinns are from the Koran," Marbury says matter-of-factly, as if his plastic-coated frog mutation could have come from the same place. In the lengthy biography Marbury invented for his own Jinn, the creature befriended the whistler and bones player Brother Bones, whose mouth tunes lured the little amphibian to his doorstep. As he tells the story, Marbury starts whistling and tapping his feet along to Brother Bones' most famous song, "Sweet Georgia Brown," which has been the Harlem Globetrotters' theme song since 1952.

According to their origin in the Koran, jinns were created from flames before first-man Adam took his first sinning footsteps on earth. Despite their long lineage, however, Marbury insists that the camouflaged creatures still are linked to Wilt "the Stilt" Chamberlain and Earvin "Magic" Johnson through only two degrees of separation. And like their basketball-playing second cousins, the frog-squirrel hybrids also have a nickname: "Ar-Rajim," or "the stoned ones."

Marbury's interest in these glass-eyed, anthropomorphic toys was piqued when he began documenting the phenomenon of tying stuffed animals to semi-truck grills a few years ago. Through the rain, mud, and highway grit, the plushy hood ornaments managed to hang on, totally unfazed. Marbury has at least 20 photos of truck fronts that are decorated with everything from a ratty, glitter-suit-donned Barbie to cheap, googly-eyed carnival prizes so frighteningly ugly they make the obnoxious "YMCA"-singing Elmo look cute.

Marbury has an eye for spotting odd cultural and animal mutations. Walking his bug-eyed dog outside his south Minneapolis home, he spots a half-tailed squirrel as it scurries through a pile of debris, leaving a cloud of dead-leaf dust in its wake. "I think it probably had its tail cut off," he concludes. Perhaps this makes Lil' Halfy less an accident victim than a true genetic freak, an unwieldy adapter who can survive an attack and somehow still stand on two feet.

Back inside his house, Marbury expounds on how cities shape our ecosystem, and his manner of speaking sounds just like Ethan Hawke waxing philosophical about love in Before Sunset. Marbury also possesses a Hawke-like baby face and the same toothy smile and deliberate mannerisms. "Peregrine falcons do really well because the city skylines are like cliffs," he says. "Horseshoe crabs thrive in Brooklyn. Why is that?" He pulls out The Urban Naturalist, a book on the subject of adaptation, from a cluttered bookcase in his living room, causing a book that documents the history of scarecrows to fall over. Marbury, it seems, is obsessed with the dichotomy of stuffed cloth creatures that become part of the living.

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